Difficult decisions still lie ahead, but some of the more productive teams in recent years locked up their best players just like the Seahawks have done.
RENTON — Before we get to how we got here, let’s start with where we are. The facts, as they say.
In the past two years, the Seahawks have signed the following players — what they consider their “core” — to multiyear contracts: Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, Michael Bennett, K.J. Wright, Cliff Avril, Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner.
No player in that collection is older than 29.
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“It means we’re going to have a very talented group of guys for a long period of time,” said Wagner, the Seahawks’ middle linebacker. “A lot of teams don’t get the opportunity to do that — or have good enough guys to have to worry about that problem. I think that’s a great problem to have, to have so many players that are good at their position that you have to figure out how to keep us all.”
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He is right on both accounts. It IS a great problem to have, and yet it is still an issue — there is only so much money NFL teams can allocate under the rain cloud that is the salary cap.
But to even get here, the Seahawks had to get two things right. They had to draft well, and they had to develop young players. One cannot happen without the other.
“As someone who managed the cap for 10 years, the key to successful cap management — and a lot of people don’t connect the two — is drafting well,” said ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt, who managed the Green Bay Packers’ salary cap and negotiated players’ contracts.
This works on two levels. The Seahawks drafted all but two of the players they’ve recently signed to multiyear deals. As the salary cap has increased — about $10 million in each of the past two years, to $143.28 million for the 2015 season — teams that have talented players already under control benefit the most because they can sign players before they test free agency.
“You extend before they get to free agency, because then they gain all the leverage,” Brandt said. “As they’ve done with Chancellor and Sherman and Thomas and Wilson, they’re getting deals done that would be markedly different if they got to free agency.”
The second importance of drafting well is more coldblooded. If you sign core players to expensive (and expansive) contracts, at some point you have to reel in costs elsewhere. And the best way to pinch pennies in the NFL is by having contributors on rookie contracts.
“Way back when we first got here,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said, “we wanted to build a team and see if we could build a team around personalities that we really thought were the ones. And it’s happened. We were able to do that.
“It does call for us to be committed to young guys, which we’ve been all along. We’re in that mode. That’s nothing new for us. Young guys are going to have to fill in the spots to complement the guys that we’ve been able to compensate. I kind of like it. This is the way we wanted to go. We wanted to go with a bunch of guys who are connected and tied together and see how far that can take us.”
But, as Carroll said, “With that comes difficult decisions, really hard decisions. It just is the nature of the business.”
So that means the Seahawks had to cut a productive and reliable player such as defensive tackle Tony McDaniel to create cap room after signing Wagner to an extension this offseason. And it means letting go of veterans such as Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Sidney Rice in previous years.
“The more players you have on your roster that are contributing on rookie contracts, the better you are cap-wise because you have balance,” Brandt said. “You have balance with young players with fixed and reasonable salaries balancing against your stars.”
By necessity, the Seahawks have largely stayed away from midlevel veterans, those proven players who fit in that financial gray area between rookie contracts and the premium money of “core” players. They have walked away from expensive mistakes such as Percy Harvin and Matt Flynn, allowing them to spread around some of that saved money down the road.
The Seahawks also have had to save money at different positions. They have three projected starting offensive linemen (Justin Britt, Alvin Bailey and J.R. Sweezy) playing on cost-effective rookie contracts, and center Lemuel Jeanpierre is signed to a low-cost, one-year veteran contract.
At receiver, a position that can demand premium money, Doug Baldwin is the highest-paid player after signing a three-year, $13 million deal last offseason. The rest of the receivers are either on rookie contracts or cost-effective deals.
There are still difficult decisions ahead — left tackle Russell Okung and linebacker Bruce Irvin are entering the final year of their deals — and the rising salary cap can cause unrest among players who signed deals a couple years ago (See: Kam Chancellor).
But some of the more productive teams in recent years — the Broncos in the ’90s, the Andy Reid Eagles of the ’90s and 2000s — locked up their best players just like the Seahawks have done.
“I think it’s surprising other people how many of us are getting paid,” Sherman said. “Every time you look up somebody is saying, ‘How are they going to pay this guy?’ And then they look up and they’re paid. … As long as the salary cap keeps going up, we’ll have a chance to keep a lot of guys.”
“Guys want to be here if at all possible,” Sherman continued. “And sometimes it’s not possible. You’ve only got so much money. If it was like baseball, we’d have quite a team.”